Francisco Brennand, in his studio, working on the azure flora designs for
the Bacardi Tower adjacent to the Jewel Box.
Courtesy of The Bacardi Archive
Miami's Jewel Box
By Aimee Rubensteen
Miamians experience the YoungArts Jewel Box from their car while driving north on Biscayne Boulevard. And there’s a moment – usually of pause – when the structure’s façade is in full view. Like a sculpture, it’s perched up on its central structure, and is as much an invitation to your eyes as it is to the sun’s beams.
Bacardi Building Cube Miami Architect Ignacio Carrera-Justiz 1973
This landmark in midtown Miami, the Jewel Box, surrenders to the sun in the best way possible: it harnesses the rays to complete its stained-glass design. Commissioned by Bacardi, and completed in 1975, the Jewel Box is a rare example of Miami Modern architecture that not only integrates art but also utilizes the surrounding element of sun.
In South Florida, most buildings ranging stylistically from Art Deco to Miami Modern, (MiMo) focus on either exterior or interior design. Even the most iconic buildings seem to bypass the sun’s impact on space. This latter detail is not technically an architectural necessity but it dramatically sets the Jewel Box apart from the landscape.
A cultural gem, the Fountainbleau Hotel, designed by Morris Lapidus in the 1950s, is a grand example of Miami Modern resort-style hotels. A sweeping concave structure marks what used to be the most luxurious spot on the Collins oceanfront. There are small nods to the curve in the lobby today, like the circular pool-like bar and rounded forms on the ceiling, but they feel like subtle memories rather than powerful décor statements. Even though the structure continues to have a contemporary impact, there is a separation between the exterior building and its inner elements.
Today, Zaha Hadid’s unbelievable but unfinished residential tower in downtown Miami is the talk of the town. One Thousand Museum, a residential skyscraper, has sweeping curves that snake up from the pavement to the penthouse. The façade is futuristic and has potential to impact the Miami landscape, but there’s an important question that few seem to be asking: will the same motifs of the exoskeleton integrate into each room? Hopefully!
Driving around Miami and observing buildings in different districts only emphasizes the success of the integrated inside/outside architecture of the Jewel Box. There is no gap between the stained-glass design soaking in the sun, and the rays beaming through onto the floor, walls, and mirrors inside. That it feels like a colorful veil between the surrounding space and the happenings inside is no accident.
Bacardi Building Cube Miami Architect Ignacio Carrera-Justiz 1973 Detail of Stained Glass from Exterior
Designed by Igancio Carrera-Justiz, the Jewel Box hovers forty-seven feet above ground on Biscayne Boulevard. The colorful glass mosaic walls on all four sides of the building are based on designs by German artist Johannes Dietz. Each side depicts the rum-making process: how stalks of sugar cane are converted into molasses. Its vibrant glamor and vivid extravagance is highlighted during the morning sun, and emphasized at night with strong, hot ceiling lights.
Like a cube-shaped kaleidoscope, the true beauty lies within the structure. The interior of the Jewel Box is lined with floor to ceiling mirrors, so when the light shines through (or inside), the building glows. The geometric shapes and colorful shards of glass take shape and shimmer. Sun is not a primary element for all Miami Modern buildings by any means, but its importance can’t be ignored.
Jewel Box interior
by Aimee Rubensteen
Comparing the Jewel Box to its partner building, the Bacardi Tower, highlights the difference between one building with design elements and another building that breathes design through its walls. The eight-story Bacardi Tower was designed by Enrique Gutierrez, a collaborator of Mies van der Rohe. In 1963, the exterior walls were covered in azure flora designs with 28,000 blue and white, 6" x 6" tiles by the Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand. The Jewel Box and the Bacardi Tower served as the Bacardi USA headquarters until 2009, and were granted an historic designation by the City of Miami Preservation Board that same year. Still, the Jewel Box’s architecture continues to be as relevant as ever.
In 2012, both buildings became headquarters for National YoungArts Foundation, an American charity that nurtures emerging high-school artists. The foundation commissioned Frank Gehry to preserve the newly named YoungArts Jewel Box, but keep the intentionality of the design intact. That the Jewel Box is a new stage for YoungArts performances is indicative of their innovative and immersive work in Miami.
Photo by Sonja Garnitschnig
As a performance venue, the building is hugely impressive in its awkwardness. This past November, I sat inside the Jewel Box, on a bench in a corner, for the YoungArts collaboration ICA Performs: Michael Clark Company production. Since the building is a square-shaped donut, the dancers made only one corner their stage. This meant that every viewer had obstructed views throughout the duration of the show, but a heightened awareness throughout. The best part of the performance was not only watching the dancers’ reflections in the mirrors behind them, but also, especially, watching how the colored light of the stained-glass windows bounced off the mirrors too. The interplay of interior and exterior design culminates in performances like these, ensuring that the MiMo building from the 1970s remains iconic today.
Aimee Rubensteen is an independent curator and art critic.